1st Sunday in Lent

February 17, 2002
See Also: 

Lenten Candle Liturgy
John Cobb on redemption
Biblical Preaching on the Death of Jesus (Cobb)

Reading 1: 
Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
Reading 2: 
Psalm 32
Reading 3: 
Romans 5: 12-19
Reading 4: 
Matthew 4: 1-11
By Barry A. Woodbridge

If the last Sunday in Epiphany were Transfiguration Sunday, this First Sunday in Lent has to be Temptation Sunday, but no one ever chooses to call it that.

Our RCL readings last week used Moses’ theophany experience on Mt. Sinai to understand Jesus’ transfiguration. This week they use Adam and Eve’s temptations to understand Jesus’ three temptations in the desert. The Psalter from Psalm 32 suggests how human transgression (trespassing in the reserved spot in Garden?) can be forgiven when we do not hide from (cover over with flimsy material) our iniquities. The epistle lesson from Romans introduces the one word the Genesis account of the "fall" never got around to using: sin. It proceeds to show how since transgression brought death through one "man’s" trespassing actions (notice how it is not Eve or the serpent but Adam who is responsible according to Paul), so God can reverse that process through the counteraction of one who exercises freedom responsibly, Jesus the Christ, who overcame death.

Our challenge as interpreters today is to handle the Genesis and Matthian texts as last week, where interpreting each one by itself is insufficient, since the church uses the one to interpret the other. We and our congregations need to read both and keep both together as we develop our interpretation of this week’s texts.

Last week we suggested that the degree of this challenge leads some to ricochet off the texts into thematic popularizations of concepts in the text. Today, that temptation (pun intended!) will be to veer away from the texts into a sermon on the subject of human temptations and how to avoid/overcome them. Probably the majority of sermons preached of this Matthew text have that as their subject. However, that constitutes a privatization of what Matthew’s community really wanted us to consider. It isn’t our temptations that are the subject of the text. Rather, it is Jesus’ temptations and how they redefine the kind of messiah he is and the kind of power God exercises in our lives to offer us life over death.

First, however, Jesus’ temptations are defined in response to the primordial temptation in the garden.

Genesis 2 proposes to us that evil and the misuse of our freedom 1) are part of our natural world and 2) originate in otherwise good responses to the choices available to us. Much has been made of the serpent in the Garden of Eden as the symbol of evil, yet the text doesn’t support that. Eve isn’t surprised and doesn’t demonstrates that "reptilian avoidance" or "fear factor" most of us would have if we encounter a rattlesnake along our path ( or a boa dangled in front of us, as occurs on the TV game show "The Chair"). The text isn’t interested in that. Neither does she express surprise that a snake talks, so she enters into a thoughtful conversation/debate with it. The serpent (the word in contemporary English suggests something more symbolically primordial and inherently fearful than a translation as "snake," but the context doesn’t seem to depend on that dynamic to convey the story) doesn’t actually say or do anything evil at all. Verse 1 tells us the serpent was "more crafty than any other wild animal" (snakes are reptiles not animals, but here are included as part of the created natural world, not something supernatural and beyond the created order). The translation "crafty" seems to have been picked up later in the spiritual-cultural language of temptation when Alcoholics Anonymous admitted to themselves that temptation to drink and lust is inherently "cunning, baffling, and powerful." (Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 56). The function of the serpent is simply to present possibilities from God’s good creation. The archetypal tree of good and evil itself is the temptation. The serpent highlights the option that tree holds. Eve entertains that possibility among others, and Eve (though notice in verse 6b that Adam has been involved in this sequence of "moments of becoming" all along and was just a silent partner) chooses the risk of incorporating more rather than fewer possibilities for life. The serpent also lifts the proposition for consideration that God may not have fully disclosed all the possibilities and their ramifications, for there is the logical possibility of E and not-D (thinking in terms of meaningful language only being that which can be expressed in linguistic analysis as a series of logical possibilities), eating and not-dying. God only gave the possibility of E and D. Eve considers the trust-worthiness of God’s speech: that is defining point of this text. Adam and Eve do what otherwise is applauded especially in process thought as holding the greater beauty, complexity, and value. They choose both/and. Both eating and living on. They do nothing inherently immoral or unethical. They make the more creative choice by transcending the either/or impasse. What could be so wrong here that all creation has to pay the price for their cosmic mistake?

The outcome raises serious ethical and bio-medical consequences for us today, especially in terms of our society’s decisions about such matters of life and death in cloning, recombinant genetics, stem cell research, and the proper use of nuclear power. Terry Fretheim’s work on Genesis, both in his Creation, Fall, and Flood: Studies on Gen. 1-11 (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1969) and his excellent recent commentary on Genesis in The New Interpreter’s Bible, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), Vol. 1, 359-362) suggests that what is at stake in this text is the questioning of the human race’s ability to discern what knowledge is in its own best interests to acquire. Adam and Eve decide against the divine forewarning that they are incapable of assimilating a broader knowledge of good and evil. Only when they acquire that knowledge do they begin to act out of fear, shame, and mistrust, dynamics which they apparently had never encountered before. They, symbolizing a society of two, become what Nathan Scott once named as a society going through "rehearsals in decomposure."

During the recent decades, at each juncture of scientific advancement, our political leaders have often expressed conservative positions about whether we should, say, legalize cloning under laboratory procedures. The scientific community has tended toward the position that we must develop our ability to manage the consequences of this knowledge and expand our ethics at a speed equal to that of scientific discovery. The church has been divided between its more liberal and more conservative constituencies over the same moral dilemmas. Some propose that if the knowledge exists and can be acquired, then it is our prerogative and mandate to acquire it, just as long as we simultaneously develop ethical and moral standards to govern the use of that knowledge. Their anthropology has a high enough view of human nature that in spite of our recent past history during the twentieth century, they believe we can rise to the occasion and can both define and globally enact ethically suitable guidelines Other more conservative voices have insisted that some knowledge is too great for humans to handle and should remain veiled in the realm of possibility. Undoubtedly, they would employ this Genesis text in their argument, complete with the apocalyptic outcome that expediting our acquisition of knowledge ("playing God") results in the annihilation of life as we know it, death, and expulsion from the Garden.

Fretheim observes one other dynamic at work in this text, which should be of assistance to our views of anthropology and assessment of ethical readiness to assume responsibility for new technologies. He observes the divine command against eating of the tree of good and evil, "seems to forbid an immediate acquisition of knowledge, though without suggesting that humans should not have wisdom. The issue involves ‘the way in which wisdom is gained’ " (Fretheim, Genesis, I:361). It involves a process of discernment of what truly is in one’s best interests, and perhaps that is the answer and measure to our ethical dilemmas today. Are we willing to enter into a responsible process of discernment prior to legalizing new technologies? Often we are propelled into "fast-tracking" both new drugs and technologies because so much more human life will be lost while we tarry. Genesis’ temptation story challenges our timelines and fears of greater loss by suggesting that if we acquire what we cannot properly handle, an even greater annihilation or total loss may be the result.

Matthew’s temptation of Jesus proceeds along similar lines as Genesis. Everything the "Satan" figure proposes to Jesus in the desert after the Moses motif of forty day and forty nights of purification is actually legitimate and helpful: to feed the hungry, to let angels protect him, and to inaugurate a politics of justice. This Satan, or accuser, at least in this scene, is not the supernatural evil power of the universe but seems to be portrayed as speaking and functioning just like the Pharisees and Sadducees, who also try to trick Jesus by quoting scripture that would be difficult to refute. Just like the ethics of the Garden, what Jesus refuses here can seem unethical: the hungry should be fed, and people should have a just ruler rather than a corrupt one. But Matthew uses this scene to redefine what God’s messiah is compared with popular messianic expectations. Part of the message involves the appropriate use of power. Jesus avoids using monopolistic power for personal benefit to fulfill immediate Jewish expectations and opts instead for an alternative power of the suffering servant to persuade the world to find the kingdom on God’s own terms. By so doing, Jesus eventually overcomes death, which in the Romans text for the day, is seen as the reversal of the death that came through the decision in the Garden.

In reflecting of this passage in Matthew in the same series as Fretheim, Eugene Boring, whose work is respected by many in the process community and elsewhere, introduces a most intriguing side-bar insert into his commentary. He begins, "Is Satan language passé?" He discusses how our contemporary cosmologies no longer allow for a supernatural power called Satan or Devil, but they may allow for an understanding of "systemic evil" as a reality of evil greater than "our own individual inclinations to evil." The value of retaining that imagery, he contends, is that "it can prevent us from regarding our human opponents as the ultimate enemy, allowing us to see both them and ourselves as being victimized by the power of evil." (Eugene Boring, Matthew, The New Interpreter’s Bible. (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995, VIII, 165). This insight should be guidance for our present deliberations over how to end terrorism and whether warfare with highly advanced technology is even capable of bringing about that exact end. Boring shows us how to use a broader conceptuality available in process thought to avoid trivializing or minimizing altogether certain concepts in scripture. He rescues the concept of a Satan by creating a space for it in an expanded cosmology where it is neither supernatural nor strictly psycho-physical. For a more detailed analysis of a process notion of evil, see Marjorie Hewitt Suhocki’s The End of Evil.